Response to Sarah Turner

Sarah Turner’s article “Blackness, Bayous and Gumbo: Encoding and Decoding Race in a Colorblind World” analyzes the contrasting opinions regarding Tiana’s representation as a black woman in Disney’s 2009 film The Princess and the Frog.  Overall, I thought Turner’s paper was logical and rich in evidence and useful quotes from outside resources.  However, I had a bit of a hard time discerning what her own opinion on the subject was…

The main question was: Is Tiana a princess who “happens” to be black (speaking to the idea of colorblindness), or is she a black princess?  Turner references Jeff Kurtti, author of The Art of the Princess and the Frog, who says that Tiana “stands apart from other Disneys princesses not simply because of her race, but also because of her drive.  It’s ultimately more about who she is than what she is.”  While I agree that the story is mostly about Tiana’s own personal development and her desire to accomplish her goal, you can’t deny the impact that her upbringing had on her as a person.  I think that BECAUSE she was in a low-income black neighborhood without many opportunities to prosper, her parents instilled such a strong desire in Tiana to push through and rise above the struggle.  I think Kurtti is remiss in denying the important role Tiana’s home community played in who she became.

Turner accurately states that Disney faced a tough challenge in conveying Tiana’s blackness (appealing to “blacks and liberal whites”) while still using her to “engage a colorblind response to the film.”  It’s true; Disney can’t win.  There will always be critics on either side saying that Tiana is “too black” (that race shouldn’t play a role in the film) or that she’s “not black enough” (that the cultural and historical relevance of her race shouldn’t be ignored).  I applaud Disney for consulting leaders of the black community, such as the NAACP and Oprah Winfrey, in order to “get it right” and avoid any possible offense or inaccuracy in the film.

I disagree with Turner’s indirect suggestion to have set the film in modern day “Obamerica.”  Though she points to Disney’s 2007 movie Enchanted, which took place in modern New York City, blending animation with live action, to show the success of a modern setting in a Disney film, I think Enchanted is in its own category.  I think it was meant for older audiences who could understand the relevance of the struggles of a modern-day setting.  Setting Tiana’s story in 2009 would bring up modern political and race issues that would not be appropriate for a children’s movie.

On a slightly different note, I like Turner’s paragraph on female body portrayal in Disney films in general.  She brings up a great point when she contrasts Disney’s previous exotic, over-sexualized portrayal of multicultural princesses (Pocahontas, Ariel, Esmeralda, and Jasmine) with Tiana’s conservative yet pretty look.  I never even thought about how other princesses of color often appeared, bearing their midriffs or wearing off-the-shoulder clothing… But now that I look back on it, it was all definitely there.  I think Disney took a great step forward in eliminating this stereotypical association from Tiana’s character, and simply focusing on her individuality.

Lastly, I think Turner makes a very logical argument near the end of her paper when she talks about Disney’s new portrayal of color as “safe and sanitized” in order to appeal to both minority viewers as well as traditional white viewers who can still identify with “the middle ground [that the] characters occupy.”  She’s clever in being able to make this connection and understanding that Disney is simply adjusting to the evolving demographics of its audience.

In general, Turner’s paper made a lot of sense and also made for an interesting read.

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